One business owner tells the News Leader of a new initiative a private group is working on to help ameliorate downtown problems with the chronically homeless
Given a difference of more than $420,000 between Sarasota County’s appraisal of the Bucko’s store site on Myrtle Street and an appraisal conducted by the owner — plus a projected expense of more than $1 million to extend water and sewer services to the property — the Sarasota County Commission this week voted unanimously to end negotiations on that site, as well as two others near it, for the location of a come-as-you-are homeless shelter.
Commissioner Christine Robinson made the motion, which also asked staff to pursue other recommendations and report any new developments to the board in the form of a memo.
Robinson further suggested that Chair Al Maio write a letter to the chair of the City of Sarasota’s Downtown Improvement District (DID), seeking information from that group regarding the chronic homelessness situation city business owners are observing in the wake of recent community efforts to assist individuals as well as homeless families and children.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — a city commissioner prior to his November 2014 election to the county board — volunteered to attend the next DID session, later this month, to convey what the county has been doing and where things stand. “They are our constituents in the same way that they are the city’s constituents,” Caragiulo said of downtown Sarasota business owners.
Robinson’s suggestion was prompted by a comment Commissioner Charles Hines made early in the Jan. 12 discussion — that he no longer is hearing from downtown merchants regarding problems with the chronically homeless. Given steps the City of Sarasota has been taking to improve the situation, Hines pointed out, fewer problems may exist. Otherwise, he said, “You would think [downtown Sarasota business owners] would be here every day” the County Commission meets, seeking help.
Reached on Jan. 12 by The Sarasota News Leader, Eileen Hampshire, owner of the Palm Avenue shop Art To Walk On and the new chair of the DID, said the issues have not diminished. Instead, she told the News Leader, “I think people get tired of voicing their problems … like voices crying in the wilderness.”
She added, “It’s very difficult to do business with the homeless population that we have.”
Hampshire was quick to note that she was referring to “people who choose to live on the street and choose to panhandle ….”
However, Ron Soto, owner of Soto’s Optical Boutique on Main Street, told the News Leader in a separate Jan. 12 telephone interview, “As far as the problem that we have, it is much better today than it was two or three years ago,” thanks to efforts by The Salvation Army and public awareness initiatives designed to discourage people from giving money to homeless individuals. He made it clear that his comments were framed as those of a business owner, not as a representative of the DID, on which he serves, or the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association (SDMA), with which he has a leadership position.
In his capacity with the SDMA, Soto said he is working with private partners on a significant new tool for helping the homeless, adding that the undertaking is pegged to finding sufficient funding.
It is a smartphone app that people could use to pay for a homeless person to spend a night at The Salvation Army’s 10th Street shelter in Sarasota. “This takes the cash out of it,” he pointed out, referring to panhandling situations. The group has been working quietly on this project, he continued. The biggest hurdle is finding the funding, he said. “Making an app is not cheap.”
If the initiative does prove successful, Soto explained, it will be advertised to residents and visitors alike. “It would be a big shot in the arm. It would probably go nationwide.”
The shelter site situation
The expense of the Myrtle Street shelter sites arose during a Jan. 12 update Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of homelessness services, provided to the board.
In addressing the Bucko’s location — 1923 Myrtle St. — he said the county’s appraisal put the value at $1,180,000, while the owner’s independent appraisal came back with the figure of $1.6 million.
A vacant 8,000-square-foot residential lot next to Bucko’s was appraised at $13,500, Applebee noted in a Jan. 5 memo to the board, but the owner puts that land’s value at about $40,000; the owner is awaiting an independent appraisal. The parcel could be purchased only in conjunction with the Bucko’s site, the memo added.
Regarding the 3941 Butler Ave. site, which comprises three parcels operating as Earth Resources Soil and Recycling: Applebee explained that while the land is vacant, representatives of the firm had voiced concerns that the “traditional real estate appraisal” the county pursued on the property did not take into account the fact that the business likely would have to close if the county bought the site, because it would be difficult to find a suitable substitute location with the necessary zoning the firm would need.
The county appraisal put the value of the 3941 Butler Ave. land at $370,000, Applebee noted in the Jan. 5 memo.
Moreover, Applebee reported, county Public Utilities Department staff has estimated the cost to extend water and sewer lines to any of the sites would be $1,016,000.
The memo also points out that staff in the county’s Office of Financial Management has projected annual operating costs of the shelter at $4 million, with funding strategies yet to be identified.
In December, Applebee told the board, county Building Department employees walked through Bucko’s, noting that the original structure dates to 1975, and additions have been made in the ensuing years. If the county purchased the parcel, he said, the first thing staff would have to do is undertake a structural analysis of the building.
Given all those factors, Applebee pointed out, it would probably take a minimum of 18 to 24 months for a come-as-you-are shelter to be created on one of the three sites, “under the best scenario.”
When Robinson asked County Administrator Tom Harmer whether he felt the board should proceed with negotiations on the Bucko’s property, Harmer replied, “I can’t recommend to you that we pay a premium for this site.”
When the News Leader called Bucko’s after the board meeting, a woman who declined to give her name said the owners would not comment. She pointed out that the past months of discussions about the potential for the county to purchase the site had hurt business. She noted that Bucko’s has been operating for 57 years, adding that it supports three families of veterans and three minority families. “We’ve served this community, and we’re natives of Sarasota,” she said.
Wrestling with a decision
During the board meeting, Robinson told her colleagues, “I think that it’s really important … to evaluate [the fact that] for every dollar we invest in the [shelter] … that’s one dollar less for services that we [can offer the homeless].”
Chair Maio pointed out that because the Sarasota City Commission has remained adamant about not having a shelter within the city limits, “we were being forced into a non-preferred site to address this real chronic homelessness problem.”
He added of the facility, “Two years to get this open is not satisfactory to me.”
Commissioner Hines referenced a point Applebee made earlier: The City of Sarasota has expanded its contract with The Salvation Army to maintain 10 beds for triage purposes at the 10th Street facility for homeless individuals brought there by Sarasota Police Department officers. The original number was six, Applebee noted, and city staff has indicated the city might increase the number to 50.
“That’s not a big step,” Hines said, “but it is a step.”
Caragiulo pointed out that the 2015 data for EMS calls show that about 77 percent of those involving homeless individuals originated within the city limits.
Robinson told her colleagues that if they have an opportunity to do so, they should watch the video of the Jan. 5 DID meeting, which she had done. “You will see exasperated businessmen and women who just feel they aren’t being listened to anymore. They’ve stopped talking because nobody’s listening.”
“The community — notice I didn’t say the city or the county — has to address this problem,” Maio responded. “I don’t think this is a community where people take care of everyday bodily functions, including bathing, out on city streets.” In recent weeks, he added, he had witnessed three such incidents.
Referring to criticism that the Bucko’s and Butler Avenue locations are near Booker Middle and High schools, as well as the city’s Robert Taylor Community Complex, Maio continued, “To ever suggest that we would hurt the kids at those schools … is patently ridiculous and it demonstrates the intensity of emotions.”
That morning, Abby Weingarten, a Bayou Oaks resident, addressed the board for the second time since November to protest a shelter in her neighborhood. By canvassing door-to-door, she said, she had gathered 143 signatures of residents opposing the facility’s location on or near Myrtle Street. “These signatures are just a fragment of a much larger total,” she told the board.
“I think that this board is prepared to do the appropriate thing whenever the appropriate thing comes across,” Commissioner Caragiulo said.
After Robinson made her motion to direct staff to cease negotiations on the Myrtle and Butler parcels, Mason added, “I don’t want folks who’ve been against these three sites to think they’ve won, because when the sun, the moon, the stars align, we will have a [come-as-you-are] shelter.”
“I can almost hear from some places north of us cheering that they won,” Maio said. “If somebody wants to consider this a victory, it’s a pretty hollow, a pretty shallow victory.”
Then Robinson’s motion passed on the 5-0 vote.
Business owners’ views
Back in downtown Sarasota, business owners Hampshire and Soto want to see new solutions, but they remain opposed to a shelter site in the city. Homeless people picked up by law enforcement officers in North Port and Venice would get rides to a city facility, but those individuals would not be expected to return to South County after a night in the shelter, both pointed out. “We will be importing vagrants into downtown,” Hampshire said
“I think the [shelter] should be in the county,” she added.
Soto agreed that a more central location for the facility is a necessity. Otherwise, he said, in the daytime, residents of a north Sarasota facility “[are] going to stay in downtown Sarasota.”